Three years ago this month I was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening form of bone cancer in my left leg. I was the ‘walking guy’ who might never walk again. I endured a “lost year” involving nine months of chemotherapy and a 15-hour surgery in which doctors removed my left femur and replaced it with titanium, relocated my left fibula to my thigh, and removed a third of my quadricep.
At the time I was the father of three-year-old identical twin daughters, and I was eager to gather as much wisdom and support for my girls as I could. I reached out to six men from all parts of my life and asked them to form a “Council of Dads” for my girls. I then asked each man for one life lesson they would share with my girls. Their answers ranged from how to travel (“Be a traveler not a tourist”) to how to dream (“Don’t see the wall.”)
But what lesson would I add to this list? What one piece of advice would I give my girls? The answer came back to my life’s passion.
Since walking was the first thing I lost when I got sick, I spent much of the year and a half I was on crutches contemplating this most elemental of human acts. Walking upright is considered the threshold of being human, the skill that most distinguishes us from our ancestors. It’s also immune to improvement. Ever since humans began walking four million years ago, the act has been essentially unchanged.
But walking can also be the source of meaning. As long as humans have worshiped gods, they have walked to get closer to them. In the Bible, the greatest spiritual breakthroughs occur when the heroes are on journeys: Abraham going forth to the Promised Land; the Israelites crossing the Red Sea; Israel exiled to Babylon. From the Haj to the Stations of the Cross, the greatest pilgrimages involve walking. And many pilgrims purposefully make their gait more arduous in order to slow their pace even more.
Now I understand why.
The simplest consequence of walking on crutches is that you walk slower. Every step must be a necessary one. When you hurry, you get where you’re going, but you get there alone. When you go slow, you get where you’re going, but you get there with a community you’ve built along the way. At the risk of admission: I was never nicer than when I was on crutches.
In the 1840's, when walking was just becoming a source of recreation across Europe, a new type of pedestrian appeared in Paris. He was called a flâneur, one who ambled the arcades. One emblem of that idleness was the fashion among flâneurs to take a turtles for walks and let the reptile set the pace.
As a paean to slow-moving, I love this notion, and it became my own wish for my daughters. Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.
This idea of slowing down became the Number 1 lesson I learned from my experience. The Liberty Bell has a quote from the Bible on its side. In the passage, God asks the Israelites every seven years to give their fields a year of rest. Every 49 years, the land get an extra year of rest, during which all families are to be reunited and all people surrounded with the ones they love. That fiftieth year is called the "jubilee year."
And though I’m still shy of fifty, that tradition perfectly captures my experience. My Lost Year was my Jubilee Year. In lying fallow, I planted the seeds for a healthier future. In forming a Council of Dads, I reunited with the people I love.
So this weekend, consider doing what we'll be doing to celebrate Father's Day, find a friend, a family member, or whomever it might be; find a turtle; and take a long, slow walk.
Bruce Feiler is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, including "Walking the Bible." He is the writer/presenter of the new PBS series "Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler," which airs on PBS December 16, 23, and 30. For more information, and to watch a preview, visit www.pbs.org/sacredjourneys.